The world’s first wheelchair: revolution and freedom

Once upon a time…

Bath, in England, was not only the setting for romantic intrigues and gossip depicted in Jane Austen’s novels, but it was also a place of freedom for people with limited mobility seeking the healing waters of its Roman baths.

These tourists often arrived in a ‘invalid chair’ or a ‘Merlin chair’ – a precursor to the wheelchair. These revolutionary vehicles allowed them to move around and participate in the city’s famous social life, usually with the assistance of servants pushing the chair from one place to another.

But while they offered unprecedented mobility, these wicker and wooden chairs were seen as a symbol of disability and dependence, and couldn’t have been more different from the modern wheelchairs that provide even more ways to move. How did wheelchairs transition from bulky to user-friendly? Thanks to wheelchair users themselves.

Wheelchairs with wheels have existed since the invention of the wheel, but it took centuries for these devices to gain popularity among the masses. Initially, people with mobility issues were pushed in devices resembling carts or wheeled furniture, operated by medical attendants or servants. When Philip II of Spain, who suffered from gout and arthritis, commissioned a wheelchair in the late 16th century, it was known as an ‘invalid chair.

Stephan Farffler, a watchmaker who had lost the use of his legs in a childhood accident, created the device so that he could propel himself to and from the church in Nuremberg, Germany. His invention resembled a modern recumbent bicycle and relied on a hand crank to move forward. Today, it is considered a precursor to the tricycle, but at the time, this unique invention hinted at the potential applications of self-propelled wheeled devices.

Farffler’s design pushed wheelchair technology forward, and a number of inventors created similar devices. One of them, the Belgian entrepreneur John Joseph Merlin, created a ‘chair for rheumatics’ that relied on gears and cranks for propulsion. The design became so popular that wheelchairs were referred to as ‘Merlin chairs’ for over a century.

However, even these early wheelchairs were primarily used by affluent individuals with attendants to push them. This was because they were challenging to manufacture, heavy, difficult to use, and virtually ineffective outdoors, more resembling indoor furniture than assistive devices. As art and disability history expert Elizabeth Guffey writes, “It was a delicate chair for delicate people.”

Wheelchairs became increasingly prevalent over the years, especially following the Civil War and the two World Wars, which left hundreds of thousands of veterans with compromised mobility. However, wheelchairs were considered medical devices, not accessories for independent living, in part due to their size and cost.

In the 1930s, paralyzed mining engineer Herbert Everest complained about the weight of his heavy wheelchair to another engineer, Henry Jennings. Together in Jennings’ Los Angeles garage, they created a folding wheelchair that weighed half as much and was much cheaper to produce. This would become the first mass-produced wheelchair and the most popular design of its time. Suddenly, wheelchair users could push themselves outdoors, get in and out of cars, and go where they pleased with little to no assistance.

The use of wheelchairs increased during the polio epidemic of the 1940s and due to the rising cost of modern warfare, as well as the development of antibiotics that allowed more people to survive spinal cord injuries, says Watson.

Once again, a new generation of wheelchair users demanded more – and ended up revolutionizing the use and meaning of wheelchairs. Some were not content with merely sitting in their chairs; they wanted to play with them too. Starting in the 1960s, wheelchair athletes seeking better sports performance began modifying their chairs to make them lighter and easier to use.

The growing disability rights movement further fueled the demand for better wheelchairs from the users themselves. “When people look at a disabled person, the wheelchair is the most obvious aspect, and they tend to forget that they are people,” said athlete Marilyn Hamilton, who lost the use of her legs in a paragliding accident, in a 1982 Los Angeles Times interview.

Hamilton was one of the athletes pushing for better wheelchairs or even creating them on their own. Athletes reduced the weight of the chairs by removing the handles that others used once to push them, declaring their independence and lightening the chairs. Then they began modifying the wheels, adding speed and maneuverability with changes that went against designs created to “protect” users from the outside world.

Ultimately, as Watson writes, wheelchair athletes were virtually building their own wheelchairs. In the 1970s and 1980s, wheelchairs with names like Quadra and Quickie were changing how users experienced the world around them, offering unprecedented access both indoors and outdoors.

(Burning Man shows how a chaotic festival can be accessible.)

Our chairs are so aesthetically pleasing that they help bridge the gaps between people with diverse abilities,” said Hamilton, who helped design the ultralight Quickie wheelchair. “It’s a huge advantage for people with disabilities.”

Meanwhile, electric wheelchairs, first introduced in Canada in the 1950s, were becoming increasingly available, allowing individuals with limited arm mobility to also use wheelchairs.

These lighter and more maneuverable chairs not only changed the daily lives of those who used them but also transformed their self-perception. The history of wheelchair development “portrays disabled people as active agents directing their own lives,” says Watson – lives that become more mobile and independent.

Where will wheelchair users lead their wheelchairs in the future? The answer is only a matter of time, technology, and confidence in the intrinsic abilities of wheelchair users.